Across the Open Moor or Down a Twisty Lane: A Guest Post from Stephanie Austin
Stephanie Austin is our author of the month for January 2023. To celebrate the publication of Death Comes to Dartmoor this month, we are pleased to share a guest post from Stephanie on the significance of the idyllic countryside in her work.
The big event of January for me is undoubtedly the publication of my sixth book ‘Death Comes to Dartmoor’. But I’m already writing the seventh Juno Browne adventure and for once, I’m writing about the season I’m living through. This is unprecedented. I’m used to writing out of sync with the seasons, trying to conjure up the muddy lanes of January during the dusty heat of July, or the hazy blues and greens of Dartmoor in high summer, when we’re so far into autumn that the bracken has shrivelled and turned crispy brown. But this year, things have fallen strangely into place, and I find myself writing about a Wassail taking place on Twelfth Night on Twelfth night. Unfortunately, writing on the correct date hasn’t brought me the snow that’s falling in my book, but you can’t have everything.
Writing a series set on Dartmoor, weather and landscape are all important in creating atmosphere and a sense of reality and place. Coming back across the moor after Christmas lunch at the Highwayman Inn this year, there was no sign of festive snow. The high tops and rocky tors were hidden beneath a blanket of low cloud, the wind driving rain slantways across the road, and apart from a few dripping ponies enduring the weather, the only signs of life were cars parked, very sensibly, outside of a pub. Just the kind of conditions I might put my heroine, Juno Browne, through; though probably not on Christmas Day.
But it doesn’t matter whether Juno is striding across the open moor, a mingled carpet of gorse and heather spread before her, or driving her old van down a twisting lane in the dark and rain, it’s the tiny details that make the difference. Naturally, it’s important to write about the open view, especially when, as on the moor, you can see for miles, to describe what fills the eye from horizon to horizon. But Juno is so often on foot, or driving her old van, that it’s also important to describe her surroundings on a human scale, not just as the hawk hovering in the sky might see them. So, the tiny wisp of sheep’s wool caught on a thorn becomes important, or the green curled fist of an emerging fern. And as anyone who has ever driven one of our famous Devon lanes knows, there is plenty of time, as you edge cautiously between hedgerows that completely block your view ahead, or squeeze yourself into a passing place as giant tractors crawl by, there is plenty of time for a driver to observe what’s growing in the hedgerow. Consequently, I always have a note-book with me so I don’t forget the wasps gathered around the ivy-flowers, the sticky seed-cases, or the watery gold reflections that sunlight throws under the arch of a stone bridge, when I come to write a story later in the year, when everything has changed.
And if by any chance I forget my notebook, I will come home with arms well-inked, as if I’ve visited a tattoo-parlour. Fortunately, no one takes any notice of that these days.
To find out more about the Devon Mysteries series, click here.